Living in a city visited by an endless stream of musical acts, San Franciscans set a high standard for music festivals. This year’s Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park delivered, raising the bar both musically and in other ways.
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Friday’s weather complied with the cold forecast, but that didn’t depress attendance, which seemed to be the largest in festival history. And Friday’s fog was but a memory on Saturday, as patrons traded clothing for sunscreen.
To many attending Friday, there were two distinct festivals: Phish and everyone else. The jam band was the only act to play two full sets. Perhaps aware that it was playing to more than rabid fans, Phish delivered perhaps the closest thing to a "Greatest Hits" show it has ever done. Standout classics were "Tweezer," a great second set "Fluffhead," and a set closing "Chalk Dust Torture."
Other Friday highlights included the aptly named Welsh trio The Joy Formidable. Its effervescent power pop was reminiscent of the Sugarcubes or Belly, but with a more muscular rock underpinning. The band ended its brief and well-received set with a mock onstage brawl between band members, one of the day’s most gleeful exhibitions of rock energy.
Two acts showed off their transition from knob-twiddlers to bands. Toro y Moi has morphed from solo, sampling-based electronics into a tight four-piece blend of Seventies disco and Stereolab. The performance started slowly due to Chaz Bundwick’s vocal hesitance, but as he and the band unwound, an infectious hipster dance party broke out. On the main stage, MGMT highlighted its similar metamorphosis, fleshing out the thin synth-pop of Oracular Spectacular with a more fully realized and ambitious sound.
Saturday’s headliner Muse performed a veritable rock opera, complete with special light and video and piano solos displayed in black and white close-ups on the Jumbotrons. Frontman Matthew Bellamy’s haunting vocals layered over driving rock, gripping the crowd during hits such as “Resistance.” The two-song encore spread beach balls colored like human eyes over the audience.
The Black Keys delivered Saturday’s biggest performance, which transformed the crowd into a pulsing sea of hands the entire length of the polo field, especially during “Howling for You” and “Tighten Up.” The duo made it feel wonderful to be outside, dominating the stage with its energetic, classic rock ’n’ roll.
OK Go were their usual theatrical, crowd-pleasing selves. They charmed an audience ranging from grandmothers to frat boys, chastising San Francisco’s “dirty sinners” but then cleansing listeners with a handbell-rendition of their pop-rock song “Return.”
There was a disturbance near the main festival entrance during the Old 97s’ toe-tapping, alt-country performance. Singer Rhett Miller, who had a view of the area from on stage, said several hundred people without tickets apparently crashed the gates in a spontaneous flash mob. “The revolution still lives in San Francisco,” he quipped.
Early musical highlights included The Vaccines, which delivered England’s version of surf-rock with a punk-rock sensibility; Ana Tijoux, who performed dancy, flavorful Chilean rap with a smart flick of the tongue; and Ximena Sariñana, whose mix of deep, soulful vocals and electronic, tropical-tinged beats delighted the crowd.
A farmers market and eco-friendly games were a staple of the Eco Lands area, where people could trade five minutes of electricity-producing seesawing or stationary biking for a snow cone. And nestled among the eucalyptus trees was a whimsical land for lost boys and girls of all ages that featured creative playground structures and parachutes breathing in the wind.
The festival’s biggest disappointment was the rapper Big Boi, who made it back stage after posting bail for his recent Miami arrest, but couldn’t ever walk the final 20 yards. Two minutes of banter from the comedian Dave Chappelle did nothing to take the edge off of people’s disappointment when Big Boi finally flaked after a delay of almost two hours.
The recorded voice of Big Boi did eventually make an appearance as one of the recordings sampled in the triumphant set by mash-up DJ Girl Talk, a crowd favorite who closed out Saturday night and left the disappointment of Friday but a memory.
Stephen Buel and Jason Silverio contributed to this review.